Saturday, 22 August 2015

Fire Colour One, by Jenny Valentine

Sometimes you pick up a book and, within the first few pages, find yourself asking, why have I never read this author before? For me, Fire Colour One was one of those books.

This is Iris’s story. Bright as flame but troubled, thanks to her turbulent childhood with her horrible, blinkered mother Hannah, and self-absorbed stepfather Lowell. It is also Ernest’s story – Iris’s real father – and Iris’s uncovering of it. While Hannah snoops and fishes for a hefty inheritance, Iris sits at Ernest’s bedside during the last days of his life and learns a million things. Things like how her parents met, and how everything really ended. Things like the truth.

My copy of the book describes it as ‘A bold and brilliant novel about deception, love and redemption,’ and that’s exactly what it is. It’s hard to put my finger on what makes it so good, it’s just got that je ne sais quoi that books like The Fault in Our Stars have. Iris is so vivid, and I felt so much for her – so much pain and so much love. She misses her lost friend Thurston so much, but doesn’t know how to find him; and she needs something more, something indefinable, but she doesn’t know how to find that either. So she builds fires. She doesn’t really build them to cause trouble or to cause damage; she builds them because she has to, because she loves the flames so much, because fire makes her feel better, because it encompasses her. Fire is magic and alive – it even needs air to be able to breathe, while Iris practically needs fire to be able to breathe.

“We see what we want to see, regardless of what we are actually looking at, nothing at all to do with the truth,” (pg.113) Iris tells us, and this is so true - of everyone, I think - but especially of her mother. Themes of lies and truth run through this novel like smoke – ever present, but impossible to catch hold of – along with themes of art and fire. It’s irresistible and unputdownable and truly excellent.

And the title? Fire Colour One is also the name of a painting by Yves Klein – a real painting, not a fictional one, and rather an important one too. But you’ll have to read the book to learn of its significance to this particular story…

I’d heard good things about author Jenny Valentine and knew that Broken Soup, her second book, had been shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize when it came out. But, for whatever reason, I didn’t expect the exceptional story and writing and characters that I found inside the pages of Fire Colour One. John Green, eat your heart out. I definitely need to go back and read her other books now.

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